By Dan Ross
That’s it. Finito. No more morning workouts beneath the cool lozenge of the waning moon. No more afternoons being led back to the winner’s circle beneath the sun and the blazing glory. Memories of those days? Echoes, now, around the trophy cabinet. Career robes dusted off, packed away. The ol’ brain, conditioned to fraction-of-a-second, life-and-death maneuvers mid-race, must be put to use anew.
“I’ll never even sit on a pleasure horse again,” admitted Gary Stevens, about an injury–a fractured vertebrae in the neck digging against his spinal cord–that yanked the curtain down somewhat abruptly on one of racing’s most decorated riding careers. A storied career, too–one with a shape-shifters fluidity. A multitude of pegs unyielding to the square hole.
He says he’s lucky not to be in a wheelchair. Towards the end of the month, he’ll go under the surgeon’s blade. “If I don’t have surgery, [the vertebrae’s] going to continue to degenerate, and eventually I would be where I don’t want to be from the neck down,” he added.
Sure, he was well into his final act in the saddle, and so, the incident in the post parade ring at Del Mar last month–the one that gave him whiplash, and a new injury to go with all the rest–can hardly be said to have cheated him his dues. Yet, there was, at least, one more scene to play out. The problem was the shepherd’s crook that appeared stage left.
“I was thinking through the first Saturday in May, if everything went right from December. Five months. And if the horse that I had my eye on worked out to what I think he can be, then that would’ve finished up the year,” Stevens said, playing coy with the horse’s name. “Everything was making me happy two weeks ago. I was enjoying what I was doing.” The mounts were on the wane, yes. “But the horses I had were good horses.”
By the time we spoke, on a rare wintery California morning, the initial dust from his retirement announcement–all those ovations of a career among the “greatest ever”–had begun to settle, leaving in its wake the yawning silence of a life in transition. And so, the blustery showers interspersed with radiant bursts of sunshine seemed a fitting mirror to Stevens’s mood. Cataract-like shadows from the clouds of uncertainty ahead flitting over his recollections of the past.
There’s no avoiding this latest injury. Stevens moves stiff-backed, as though encased within an invisible body brace, his doctor having warned him to play it safe. No accidents that could imperil the spinal cord any more than it already is. “I have never dealt with nerve pain before. I’ve dealt with broken bones, torn ligaments–horse stepping on your foot,” he said, lingering over the burning and the stinging. “It comes in moments, but hopefully, that can be corrected.”
Pain, as he knows all too well, can have a voracious appetite, and Stevens currently wears a hunted quality in contrast to the jockey who, nearly six years before, at the tender age of 50, commenced his third step out of retirement. Back then, he had endured a two-month military-styled boot-camp in Washington State, and returned south rock-hardened for the tasks ahead. “No pain. The freedom of getting on a horse’s back with no one else in charge, just me and the horse… a real good feeling,” Stevens said at the time in an interview with The Guardian. And the rewards were soon returned with astonishing generosity.
By the end of his first year back, he’d landed a GI Preakness S. on Oxbow (his 9th Classic), and a first ever GI Breeders Cup Classic, on Mucho Macho Man. In all, the past 6 years bagged him a further 16 Grade I’s, including a vintage romance with Beholder, culminating with their thrilling victory over Songbird in the 2016 BC Distaff. “I never would’ve got to have the relationship with two of the greatest horses that I’ve ridden had I not come out of retirement, and that’s Beholder and Mucho Macho Man,” he said.
Indeed, his late-career renaissance was prompted by a sense of unfinished business. “I’d lost that burn,” Stevens said, about his retirement in 2005. “The only thing that was lighting me up was a million-dollar race. That’s what was turning the trigger on. When I came back [in 2013], I’d realized some things–things I still needed to do.” In saying that, Stevens’s whole career has been pockmarked with periods of restlessness and hungry curiosity–just take the years leading to and from the millennium. He was still enjoying his pick of horses Stateside, and yet he upped-sticks to Europe on various busman’s holidays, riding regularly for the likes of John Gosden and Andre Fabre, as well as a couple of sirs: Henry Cecil and Michael Stoute.
Straddling the transatlantic this way, he’s in an enviable position to pass judgment on some of the most successful trainers of the modern era. He rattled off the ones he’s ridden for, epic-list style–making sure his father, trainer Ron Stevens, got first call–before hopscotching over names like Whittingham, Lukas, and Frankel, as well as the aforementioned Euros. “I mean, these are champion trainers that any guy hopes he can ride one for,” he said. “That list is huge.”
In terms of “ease of communication,” he singles out Stoute and Richard Mandella for highest honors. Indeed, with Stoute, “his work was done at home,” said Stevens. “I would go to his house and sit like we’re sitting right now the night before a race, and we would discuss what we thought may or may not happen. The next day, as soon as I was finished riding, the phone would ring and it would be Michael. We would discuss the horses, what had just been done. Good, bad or indifferent.”
As for Mandella, “there’s a reason he’s in Charlie Whittingham’s barn at Santa Anita,” Stevens said. “They’re so meticulous in their work. You know, people always say, ‘oh, they always get the best-bred horses.’ But best-bred horses don’t mean anything unless the guy calling the shots knows what to do with them.”
Stevens’s upbringing in the pristine wilds of Idaho, breaking thoroughbreds when he was nine years old, hardly seasoned him for the opulent living rooms of knighted Newmarket trainers. “I mean, we weren’t wealthy at all, but I thought we were the richest kids in the world.” What it did prepare him for was the decidedly Dickensian world of racetrack life, where a hard-scrabble rise through the ranks is achieved through luck, wile and gumption, and not a little hard graft.
He describes his father, Ron, as “the Idaho version of Vince Lombardi,” the so called “toughest” coach in pro football. “You lived the Vince Lombardi way, man. If you mess up, go run a lap. If it’s a horse, if you mess up, go and clean that horse’s hooves. Not just one horse, do the whole shed row. You didn’t make the same mistake twice.” It instilled a philosophy of never make-do. “And if people say, ‘you can’t do this,’ I like to prove them wrong.”
When he came out of retirement at 50, for example, “they honestly thought I was crazy, including ‘The Chief,’ Allen Jerkens. I’ll never forget the day that I was at Gulfstream to ride Mucho Macho Man, after I’d won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. [Jerkens] came up to me and he says, ‘Gary, I thought you were completely crazy, but you proved me wrong. You still have it.'”
That same shape-shifter quality of his career maketh the man, too–some would distill it down to being “complicated.” For on the one hand, there’s his swagger and ease before the camera–the part of him, armed with a press-ready quip, that led to gigs on NBC and in film. “I’ve always been very confident in my gut feelings,” he said. “They’ve worked out pretty well for me since I was an early teen. If it looks like arrogance, it’s not. That’s just the way I was taught. In every great rider you see it–in their demeanor, walking out to the paddock.”
There was his cerebral approach to race-riding, and the tunnel vision–how he largely shut out the press a week before a big race. “Until two weeks ago, that’s how I approached a racehorse. I’m going into battle out there, and I need to know every move of the jockey, what their pluses are, what their minuses are, and the horses they’re riding.”
Then there’s the candor, and his “heart on my sleeve” probity. “Sometimes I say some things that I regret, but hopefully, I’m man enough that I can recognize it, and make apologies to make things right.” One aspect of his life that he’s been strikingly forthright about are his struggles with injury, and the resulting addiction issues. Indeed, Stevens and injury have long been bedfellows, though decidedly unhappy ones.
As a child, he suffered from Parthes disease, which affects the hip. It put him in a metal leg brace for months. And from there pretty much, the injuries kept adding up and adding up. A collapsed lung and the broken vertebrae from a fall in 2003, for example. The broken collarbone from a training accident in 2010. A new knee and the new hip in recent years. Mind you, the ol’ joints have never been what you’d call precision engineered. “Your knee is going to look like a watermelon by the time you’re 35 years old,” the doctors once told him.
“I don’t really know what riding pain-free is,” he added. “I really don’t. From 16 years old, there’s always been a broken finger or broken toe or elbow that’s been bounced off the starting gate.”
It’s manageable when the adrenaline’s flowing, “covering whatever you’ve injured,” Stevens said. But when the adrenaline stops, boy, does the hurtin’ come back bad. “I’ve been addicted to pain pills on different occasions throughout my career–hard to get off of,” he admitted, matter-of-fact. His problems with alcohol have also been well documented. An all too common part of a jockey’s life. When Garrett Gomez and Chris Antley–“Chris was like my little brother”–both succumbed to their own individual demons, “there was no emotion because it was something I expected.”
What would help, he said, is if the riding weights were raised in the U.S. “It’s hard, and people will say you can’t do it, but we’re not making them as small as we used to, especially here in America and in Europe. Our nutrition has changed a lot. [Children are] getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
And whilst on the subject of change, let’s talk about the racing calendar. “The problem with our sport here in America is we’re year-round,” he said. “There’s never any downtime. It’s not a six-month sport where you can heal things up. Sometimes we’re healing ourselves up in competition, and then something else goes wrong.”
Those particular dramas are behind him now, once and for all–no more maybes. No more farewell tours. Indeed, already he’s started shedding his riding equipment, gifting saddles to close friends, taking a leaf out of Laffit Pincay’s book, “the Pirate,” who in retirement gave Mike Smith his saddle with the “skull and crossbones on it.”
There’s a new career on the horizon (which Stevens stubbornly won’t reveal). And there’s the surgery at the end of the month. “I’m a little bit scared because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s not cut and dry.”
All of which he’s viewing, however, with a backward glance, over Derby wins–three in all–that have placed tectonic strains on his personal life. Over Breeders’ Cup victories–11 in all–that have asked unreasonable demands of his body. “I said all along this game has peaks and valleys, and it seemed like the longer a valley was, the higher the peak.”
And yet, Stevens added, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
So, what’s driven him all these years? Religion? Faith? Family, he said, parents, wife, children, grandchildren, have been key. And then there’s the specter of that great imponderable. “It’s like the old Kris Kristofferson song, ‘Why Me Lord?’ Of all the billions and billions of people that are born, I could not understand, couldn’t grasp it,” he said. “As my career kept on, I still asked, “why me?”
He’s asking it now, under new but not unfamiliar circumstances, knowing there won’t be an answer. Chances are, there never will be. But it’s not surprising the question keeps cropping up. That hungry curiosity–it’s got him this far. As for where it takes him now–well, we’ll just have to find out.